The Vast But Delicate China-Germany Alliance

Chinese and German leaders met last week to further extend economic ties. Yet in the shadow of Hong Kong, issues like espionage, democracy and competition make for a fragile relationship.

The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang presents a burr puzzle to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 10, 2014.
The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang presents a burr puzzle to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 10, 2014.
Stefan Braun

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel"s podcasts have so far had very limited impact, although she continues to address the public regularly via the Internet. And just about as regularly, there is very little reaction.

So it's very interesting that just a few days before last week's consultations between the Chinese and German governments, Merkel chose that medium to comment on the Hong Kong democracy protests, saying she was happy that "the protests have been peaceful so far" and adding that she hoped "the police would also react judiciously."

The remarks were harmless, and it's unlikely that the demonstrators in Hong Kong or China's critics in Germany took much notice. But shortly before Friday's meetings began, rumors were flying around Beijing that the German ambassador had been called in for a talk as a result of Merkel's comments.

As it turns out, the rumor was just that, a rumor. But the anxiety that inevitably emerges on the subject of Beijing's human rights policies demonstrates just how wobbly the supposedly stable strategic partnership is between the two countries. And for that reason these government consultations are also going to be a balancing act.

Although links between the governments and the economies have perhaps never been as tight as they are today, the most subtle of nuances can offend. Maybe that's why Merkel mentioned Hong Kong days beforehand on the Internet. The reference and its venue were insignificant enough not to unleash open conflict. And since then no China critic can claim she left the subject unaddressed.

A unique arrangement

China doesn't conduct high-level consultations that include prime ministers with any other country. On Friday, 14 Chinese ministers met with 12 of their German counterparts to discuss more than 100 joint projects, the focal point being the so-called innovation partnership. But what's supposed to sound particularly clever harbors risks. While Beijing mainly understands innovation partnership to mean more exchange of high tech, Berlin is trying to extend the term to include the environment, climate protection, agriculture, food, but also social policies, education and democracy.

In the context of innovation partnership, the German federal government even hopes to discuss whether "a society can only really be innovative if its people can think freely,"" as a member of the Berlin government put it. Will it work? The word is that the Chinese are at least "prepared to talk."

That could of course be because Beijing, like Berlin, has to deal with worsening economic data, and the two countries need each other more than ever. Their economies have complemented each other well over the last 10 years, although the situation is slightly tenser now. A poll of German companies by the Berlin-based Mercator Foundation shows that business conditions are becoming increasingly difficult and that more companies are seeking alternatives to the Chinese market.

That is in part explained by the fact that many Chinese companies are trying to compete with the Germans in areas where the latter lead world markets. China is increasingly going "from junior partner to competitor," says Mercator's Marc Szepan.

Espionage plays a role in this too. According to German intelligence circles, there are hacker attacks from China on medium-sized German companies every week. But despite all the aggravation, it remains clear that the Chinese market is still irreplaceable for many German companies.

What should in any case be addressed are the cases of two Germans sitting in Chinese jails and facing possible death sentences. That goes too for easing visa requirements for both sides, and the difficulties faced by German policy foundations operating in China. Along with economic interests, Berlin's diplomats are also pursuing political goals, urging Beijing to pressure the Russians to stay moderate in the Middle East and Ukraine. Since Russia has been in conflict with the West over the Ukraine crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become more dependent on good relations with China. Berlin sees an opportunity there to weigh on Putin via Beijing.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!